The Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019 gets underway on Friday with hosts Japan playing Russia at the Tokyo stadium. The seven week tournament will see the winners unveiled at about 8pm local time on the 2nd November. The 48 matches normally only get interesting when the competition reaches the Quarter Final (QF) stage, but this year I think that three of the four groups have the potential for a surprise QF entrant. In the past, there has normally only been one pool where an upset may take place. However, this time, I think that there is only one pool where there wont be a upset. That is in Pool B, where the Southern Hemisphere powerhouse of New Zealand and South Africa will be too strong for the rest of the group. The one concern that I have, especially with the pools being tight, and I expect many pools to potentially come down to bonus points (BP), is that some games are played indoors. I look back at RWC 2011 in New Zealand.Though this did not have an effect on the outcome of the pool, the indoor match in Dunedin could have been pivotal. England played three of their four pool matches there, while Scotland didn’t play any. Scotland played two of their matches in Invercargill, which can be wet and windy at the best of times, but in their game against Georgia, it was horrendous, which meant that they missed out on a TBP. As I said, it wouldn’t have effected the outcome of the pool, but it may do this year as it wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility that three of the four pools could all have teams that qualified in first place, having lost a match!
Looking at the pools.
I’ll start with the Pool A and B, who will make up one half of the QF draw.
Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Samoa, Russia
I think this is the hardest pool to call. You could say that four of the five teams (not Russia) will have thoughts of progression, but I think it will be down to Scotland, Ireland and the hosts, though Samoa may have a say in the outcome. When the fixtures came out, I was concerned about the timing of the last two Scotland matches, especially as the last was against Japan (potentially a qualifying decider), who would have had three days extra to recover. However, I think Scotland could play their second string in the penultimate game against Russia and easily get the full complement of points. You would expect both Scotland and Ireland to go through, and their opening game against each other could be vital. Ireland have gone from being a potential winner just over a year ago having beaten New Zealand to an outside bet. They also have the burden of history. They have never got past the Quarter Finals and were clear favourites against Argentina four years ago. They have recovered from the humbling at Twickenham in the second of their warm-ups, though England do look like they have their number. They are still struggling in the set-piece and that may be their Achilles heel. The fact that the first game is between the 6N rivals may play into Scotland’s hands! Ireland’s set piece woes have improved but still needs work, while Scotland’s first choice XV are a match on their day for anybody. As it is the first match, Scotland will not have any injury woes, which may be an issue for them come the QFs. Scotland’s first choice 8, as long as they are not being refereed by Romain Poite, will at least hold their own and give the backs a platform to work from. That is where Scotland have developed over the last RWC cycle. They have a controlling first 5/8, with wings and full backs that can do damage. If they can get the ball to these players (without many errors), they may surprise many people. As for the rest of the pool, Japan could beat either Scotland or Ireland, as they showed against SA in 2015, they can beat top tier countries. With this being on home soli, I think they have a great chance to beat one of Ireland and Scotland. However their disappointing performance and result against South Africa at the weekend, will not have been good for their confidence. From this group I don’t see an upset in regards to qualifiers. Scotland and Ireland for me, but not sure in which order.
New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Namibia, Canada
This is the easiest of the Pools to call the qualifiers. It will be the two Southern Hemisphere heavyweights of New Zealand and SA. I expect them both to win their matches against the other countries with a TBP. The victors of the game between the two, will play either Scotland or Ireland, and it is unlikely that either will fall at the QF stage, so they will probably want to avoid Ireland, but it will not be the end of the world, if they did. What would make winning the pool better for them , is that they would potentially avoid England in the SF, if `England were to win their group. They play their match before Scotland meet Ireland on the first weekend, so no gamesmanship will come into play. Looking at history, SA winning the Rugby Championship in the Summer, it a poor predictor of World Champions. No team that has won the preceding Championship has gone on to win the World Cup. During the Championship, New Zealand played about with combinations, so to a certain extent didn’t fully commit to the tournament. Having said that New Zealand have a strength in depth of talent, so if they needed to select another player, they would be of the desired quality. They drafted in (fourth choice?) first five Stephen Donald for the 2011 final, and he closed out the game and kicked the winning penalty. I think the winner will come from this, and it could potentially be between the two teams, but I fancy New Zealand to win the pool and move onto the final, meeting either SA or England in the final.
So from Pool A and B, I envisage the QF line up to be
Scotland v New Zealand
Ireland v South Africa
With both Southern Hemisphere teams progressing